Mark Palermo

Long Ago Saturday Nights at the Circle 9

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In January 2009, a musical legend passed away in a Methuen nursing home. He was a country and western singer who got his start during the depression, playing for two dollars a day in a Manchester, NH clamshack. From there came appearances on live radio, and he spent the rest of his life playing at country fairs and small town venues throughout rural New England.

If you are over 55, you may remember Clyde Joy from his TV program on WMUR- Manchester in the 1950’s. This was long before cable TV and if you grew up in Lawrence as I did, you had to adjust the rabbit ears just right to pick the station up. Clyde, sporting a ten-gallon hat and string tie, would MC the show speaking in his backwoods New Hampshire accent while his wife, Willie Mae, co-hosted and played the upright bass. And the show went out live. In the early days of television, live meant really live- not merely taped before a studio audience, which seems primitive by today’s digital programming standards, but somehow more genuine and spontaneous.

Music took Clyde many places in life as it did with me. I started playing guitar at dances when I was in high school. Graduated to taverns, college mixers, supper clubs and honky tonks- I was even a street musician in Madrid, Spain and played organ in a church. But I will always remember when the capricious hand of fate placed me into Clyde’s musical orbit in the summer of 1974.

That’s when somebody needed a bass player in a hurry and I got a call. Was I familiar with country music? I lied and said I was. With three chords, country music is easy- I was studying jazz. Anyway, it paid well and I ended up that summer playing in the house band at the Circle 9 Ranch in Epsom, NH- which was owned by Mr. Clyde Joy.

Looking back now, the Circle 9 was pure Americana. This was when the economy of rural communities was sustained by farming and light manufacturing; when most Main St. businesses were locally owned, including even department stores and banks.

The Circle 9 gig turned out to be a Saturday night barn dance. Not a caricature of a barn dance by yuppies trying to simulate the experience of being “country.” No, this was the real thing. If only I had thought to take pictures. Rural folks arrived in pickup trucks with the mounted gun racks. Admission was three bucks and you bring your own booze and drink it at wooden picnic tables inside. Sometimes a whole family would be at a table, including grandpa, grandma and the kids, sometimes even with a baby in a cradle next to the cases of beer, a spectacle which reminded me of the Okies in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. By the end of the night things could get wild, but it was great fun. I remember a hefty, perspiring woman who would climb up on stage every Saturday night and belt out “The Games People Play.” (I wondered what was in her life to make this song resonate so much with her.) Then the height of the evening was when Clyde, wearing his ten-gallon hat and string tie, would sing a set with the band, bringing the house down with his signature “I Got My Education Out Behind the Barn.” Clyde was an excellent showman.

We all were drinking, but I noticed Clyde was drinking a lot- actually getting wasted during his performances. In fact, at times we had to tune his guitar for him or steady him onto the stage. Another time, he couldn’t go on because his beautiful Gibson acoustic guitar was found outside- smashed with a rock. Something was terribly wrong, and when I found out what it was, I realized it would make anyone want to get wasted:  Clyde’s youngest son had been killed in Vietnam a couple of years before. And his wife, Willie Mae, had just left him for one of the musicians in his band. Thinking back on it now, I think he smashed his own guitar out of frustration. Can you imagine having the job of entertaining people- catering to the needs of a crowd- when your life is falling apart? But when entertaining is your livelihood, that’s what you must do.

But it ended well for Clyde. Through it all he prevailed, becoming a beloved, venerable elder statesman to ever younger generations of country fans. He kept performing into old age, and was an annual feature at Deerfield Fair.

His passing reminds me once again that in the long run, it’s not so much the storms of life that come to you, but how you react to them that define your character. Music took him places, and I remember the places music has taken me too-like those long ago Saturday nights at the Circle 9 Ranch.

December 2009